Successful Web Strategies

To build your presence online, you must, of course, start with a web site. However, the web address or the site itself shouldn't just consist of YourNameHere.com. Focus on a niche, says Jami Sales, president of CruisingCo.com and the Disney-oriented MouseEarVacations.com, as well as managing director of the upcoming UncommonCruises.com, which debuts at the end of March.

As is evident from each web address, every one of Sales' web sites has a specific focus. Any venture you pursue on the web should have the same, Sales advises. "It appeals to a specific kind of traveler by having a forum to share experiences and by giving access to articles about the products that are specific to small ship cruising or specialty cruises," Sales says.

Though Sales admits maintaining a web site takes a lot of work and manpower— UncommonCruises.com required three full-time workers over the last year—it pays off in the long run.

Tom Rockne, president of Passageways Travel

"We spent a great deal of money on marketing Disney-related sites and print magazines and all of that comes back in the forms of leads," she says. "Agents also write content for the site with their names listed and in turn get more leads because of it," she says.

Given the cost and time investment web sites require, Sales believes a better option for some home-based agents is to affiliate with an agency site that supports your expertise. "Find an agency that's deeply involved in that as a host agency, because you will get better structured commissions," she says.

Starting a Blog

Another option to help home-based agents build their presence on the web is to start their own blog, or web log, just as Vicki Freed, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Carnival Cruises is about to do.

In early February, Carnival began running ads with Freed's picture, asking, "What can I do for you?" alongside the e-mail address, vickilovestrav elagents@carnival.com. The goal of the e-mail account, Freed says, is for agents to sound off on issues and Freed will then discuss these issues on her blog, which as of press time, was not yet constructed. "I want to be in touch with agents, and I want to know what they're thinking and what they want," Freed says. "I'm amazed at the e-mail that we're getting so far."

On her blog, Freed will discuss new Carnival initiatives and ask for feedback from agents on how the cruise line can serve them better.

"We care and want to hear from agents," Freed says. "Although we do source directly to consumers, our biggest customer is the agent community."

You don't need the marketing power of Carnival Cruises in order to start up your own blog. Sites such as Blogger.com and Wordpress.com offer free blog hosting—the only thing you need is Internet access, an e-mail account and the wherewithal to write about just about anything you want as it pertains to your business or the industry.

All-Travel.com, a Signature member agency headquartered in Valencia, California, created a web presence nine years ago when it inaugurated their first one page web site. The company has since gone into cyberspace overdrive, maintaining 13 web sites overseen by two full-time web designers. All-Travel.com embraced the Internet not as a competitor, but as a way to market the agency.

"When we created our first web site way back when, results weren't immediate," says David Van Ness, vice president of marketing, All-Travel.com. "We got some bookings, but our web site wasn't a great moneymaker for us." This has changed in a big way for the agency. "We certainly couldn't go back to doing business without the Internet," says Van Ness. "By marketing on the Internet, we're not constrained by a zip code."

All-Travel.com makes a point of having a lot of content on their sites. "We're trying to create a site that is sticky and relevant to the clients' needs," explains Van Ness. "Our goal is to get the client to pick up the phone to book." Van Ness observes that the travel business is still a relationship business. The agency actively goes after repeat business, and currently has a client repeat rate of 30 percent.

"We create e-mail marketing that goes out to our customer base of 80,000, although these are targeted offers," says Van Ness. "A Silversea client isn't going to be interested in an Apple promotion." Focusing on one niche, as does MouseEarVacations.com, is quite effective

One mistake Van Ness has seen agencies make is linking up to just anybody, instead of evaluating who they're linking to. "We're extremely selective—potentially, you can lose customers to another vendor or travel agency," he says. "It's like musical chairs—you want to be in front of your client when they're ready to buy."

In an attempt to stay cutting edge, All-Travel.com will institute a blog within the next six months. "I see the blog with the greatest relevancy to be one coming from the consumer, sharing information about cruises and trips they've taken," says Van Ness. When asked about the possible consequences of a client-created blog, Van Ness offered that it's a fine line he's walking: "I want to be open to criticism of our staff and agency, and I don't have a problem with a client criticizing a vendor if that's been the client's experience. A particular product might not have been the right product for that client."

Van Ness has this tip for agencies with web sites: "It's important to keep your information updated. It's an ongoing juggling act, and there's a lot of hard work involved, but we're diligent about daily updating of our sites."

Have Multiple Sites

Nancy P. Vinson, owner of Vacation Discounters Inc. in San Ramon, CA, says the best web strategy is to build as many web sites as possible. According to Vinson, whose agency created it first web site in the late '90s and has since created nearly 30 more, one web site is not enough and may scare the client away with too much information.

Besides that factor, Vinson also takes pride in the fact that each of her agency's web sites is devoted to one type of niche market, such as wine tasting or honeymoon vacations, or one type of destination, such as Hawaii or Alaska.

"I don't think consumers like to go online and see a web site that has information on everything," she says. "I would rather a client see that we know a lot about one thing than a little about everything."

Instead, Vinson makes sure that every web site has one type of vacation. Vacation Discounters Inc., a member of the Signature Travel Network, has gross sales of more than $5 million and uses about 20 independent contractors. Vinson says each of the contractors has a different area of expertise and contact information for each of the appropriate contractor is available on the site that best fits that particular contractor. For example, if a consumer is visiting a site devoted to Vacation Discounters Inc.'s trips to Alaska, the consumer will be directed to a contractor who specializes in Alaska.

The best to utilize the web, Vinson contends, is by using to give people information to convince the consumer that your agency knows what it's talking about.

Price information and booking should be left for either face to face or phone conversations only, Vinson says. If clients are interested in booking a vacation on one of the Vacation Discounters, Inc.'s sites, they will be given a phone number of an agent to call. Or, if consumers fill out a question form with general information about themselves, Vinson herself will contact them via e-mail with information on who they should speak with.

Nancy Vinson, whose travel company runs about 30 sites

"Some people use the web because they want information and they want it quickly," Vinson says. "Some people don't use the web because they want that "person-to-person" feel; they want to speak to a real person. We offer both, and I think that's why we are so successful."

Stand Out From the Crowd

Travel agents and agencies really need to stand out from the crowd, says agency owner and technophile Bruce Fisher, and there are lots of ways to harness the power of the web to do just that.

"It's so hard for people to think of the Internet as their friend, but there are a lot of tools that can help you," notes Fisher who owns Honolulu-based, Hawaii-only Hawaii Aloha Travel with his wife, Yaling Yu Fisher. "You need to focus on who you are. The best thing you can do online is to get people to call you so that you can share your personality and expertise."

At Hawaii Aloha Travel, the Internet functions as a tool that attracts potential customers. "The process is humanized from then on," Fisher explains. Technology hums in the background, from VoIP telephones that enable agents to talk with clients to the generation of invoices and other tasks.

Harnessing technology has been profitable for the agency, which doubled its force of independent contractors last year, and almost doubled its gross as well—to $5.4 million. Agents and agencies taking their first steps in cyberspace can make use of several tools available at little or no cost to attract the attention of potential clients, Fisher notes.

"Research and join a travel forum as an expert," he suggests. At www.allexperts.com, for example, Fisher is listed as a Hawaii expert and his name and profile are posted for free. Browsers can pose questions, and after you've reached a certain number of questions, people can view your answer. As an expert, he notes, you can build credibility in the marketplace by the caliber of your replies, as well as by the ratings you earn from site visitors. "It's a real good way to get yourself out there," he says. "You want to be where the people are you're trying to reach." Fielding questions also alerts you to questions that may be on potential travelers' minds and the research you may end up doing adds to your market knowledge.

If you're interested in attracting a younger demographic, Fisher suggests establishing a presence at MySpace, which he says is very search engine friendly. This is something the younger Hawaii Aloha Travel agents have done.

Developing blogs and podcasts are other ways to heighten visibility at little cost; neither requires a web site but if you've got a site you can develop synergies by incorporating them into it. If you create a blog, maintain and promote it by way of such search engines as those operated by Google, Technorati and Digg.

At press time, Hawaii Aloha Travel had created 108 podcasts; by the time you read this the number will have climbed, because the agency produces a new one every other day. "We just started doing this six months ago, and hundreds of people are seeing the blog each day and we're having 300-500 podcast downloads a day." All-Travel.com packs its web site with content

You should banish the notion that you need a special device to hear a podcast, Fisher adds, because all you need is a web browser. "It's narrowcasting," he says of podcasting. "You're not trying to set the whole world on fire."

Then again, you never know: The Travel Channel did a shoot at Hawaii Aloha Travel about "Hawaii Do's and Don'ts" that airs this month. And how did this come about? Turns out the producer caught one of Hawaii Aloha Travel's podcasts.

Continue Growing and Adapting

Passageways Travel's development has somewhat mimicked the rise of the Internet: what began as a small provincial outfit more than two decades ago has now blossomed into a multi-office operation, with clients strewn across the U.S. and sales closing in on $100 million. To keep ahead of the curve, Passageways has adapted its business model to embrace strategies capable of growing the business in an exceedingly web-driven business environment.

Tom Rockne, Passageways' president, has long known the importance of maintaining and growing his company's web site. "We're about to launch the fourth or fifth iteration of our web presence," Rockne says. The ability to touch clients or prospective customers before the point of sale and relay real-time information is necessary to the success and growth of a travel agency. Rockne has concerned himself with attaining this electronically, and says it's paying unexpected dividends. "We dispense more information and reach out to touch customers via e-newsletters more than we book online," he says. Yet the newsletters are guiding more people to the web site, which is increasing its bookings. "The information we share on our site, and the invitation to contact us via e-mail or phone, is resulting in a discernable, if not precisely measurable, response."

Still, Passageways hasn't thrown all of its money behind a total web solution—yet. "We are only beginning to dabble in optimization efforts," Rockne says. Search engine optimization (SEO) tools can up a company's presence on the web, potentially attracting more customers. SEO's improve rankings with search engines, such as Yahoo and Google. For example, if an agency wants to highlight its European cruises business, a skilled programmer can arrange it so that if a user searches the keywords "European" and "cruises," that agency's web site will pop up near the top of the first page of search results. The higher a web site's placement, the more hits it may manage to draw.

One Piece of a Puzzle

Yet when it comes down to it, a strong web presence is only one thread spun to attract potential clients. "A web site today is a must," shares Rockne, and it also cuts down on time consumption. "You don't have the time to deliver all the information and assurances to clients individually that your web site can deliver to hundreds and thousands," Rockne says. "We brick and mortar agents have dealt with our friends and neighbors for decades, and that's our lesson and advantage going forward. They've walked in, called and now they e-mail. On the web, we need to convey that same caring (and) expertise."

To that, Passageways' web interface is accessible and loaded with juicy information prospective clients can use. Airfare deals are prominently displayed at the top of the web site along with Passageway's swiftTRIP booking engine, which Passageways co-owns. A recent option added to the site is Passageways Select, which are value-oriented escorted or operator-hosted trips. Details of each trip are available on the web site with indications on how to book. Also highlighted is Passageways expert insights, a section devoted to agent recommendations of notable travel destinations—refreshingly candid, firsthand agent accounts, free from sterilization and never generic.

One of the strongest parts about Passageways' web strategy is that the web site is wholly owned and operated by the company.

"As an owner, we set the overall course and then maintain our own internal support to reflect our persona and keep it fresh," Rockne says. "We maximize our efforts on good solid information, clear value-added travel opportunities and 24/7 service."

—By David Eisen, Camie Foster, Jennifer Merritt, Joseph Pike, and Mark Rogers